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Iraqi peacemaker wants friendship to follow violence

MONTEVIDEO -- While hundreds of National Guard troops from west central Minnesota are deployed in Iraq, an Iraqi-American came calling to introduce children to the country.

Sami Rasouli, director of the Muslim Peacemaker Teams, told a small gathering Monday in Montevideo how he is working to promote a letter writing exchange between Iraqi school children and their counterparts in the U.S. The "Letters for Peace'' initiative is only one of a number of attempts to make connections that Rasouli hopes will help in the rebuilding of his native country.

Rasouli is also working to promote sister city-like relationships between schools in the Twin Cities and in Najaf, Iraq.

"The dust is still hanging in the air,'' said Rasouli of the legacy of the war and violence that has afflicted the country since the U.S. invasion on March 20, 2003.

Rasouli is the former owner of Sinbad's in Minneapolis, a restaurant that introduced Middle Eastern culture and foods to Minnesota. He returned to Iraqi after the 2003 invasion and began working with Christian and Muslim peace teams calling for an end to the occupation and violence.

His visit to Montevideo -- his second in a year's time -- came at the invitation of the Montevideo Area Peace Seekers.

Rasouli said that the violence in Iraq may have abated, but the problems he attributes to the occupation and ensuing violence remain over whelming. Most of the schools in Najaf -- a city of over 1.2 million people -- lack safe drinking water, he said. There are high cancer, infant mortality and deformity rates in areas where heavy fighting occurred, he told his audience.

The occupation has made refugees of more than 3 million Iraqis, and Rasouli spoke of the turmoil and anguish many now face. He said he has come to know Hajji Ali, the Iraqi prisoner at Abu Graib who was under the black hood in the iconic photo of the infamous prison.

He faced death threats after his release from the prison and is now a refuge living in Germany, where Rasouli said the former detainee bemoaned his children's separation from their country's culture. He said Ali told him: "Why should we pay a heavy price because the U.S. invaded my country? I am dying slowly.''

The U.S. has an ethical responsibility to put the country back on the right footing, according to Rasouli. He questioned the high economic cost of the U.S. involvement -- which he said some project could eventually top $3 trillion- while so many problems persist for the average citizens of Iraq.

The average Iraqi views the U.S. largely through their experiences of the Gulf War and 2003 invasion and a plethora of Rambow-type movies, according to Rasouli. He said he wants to show Iraqis -- through both the letter writing exchange and visits -- that there is a much different side to U.S. life.

He recently led a delegation of Iraqi visitors from Najaf to the Twin Cities for that purpose.

He's also working to promote reconciliation between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. Rasouli is a Shiite Muslim who has remarried. He said he named his new son from his second marriage "Omar,'' a name traditionally associated with Sunni Muslims.

Christian and Muslims share the same ideals, said Rasouli, and can and must work together for peace.

"We need you, and you need us too,'' he told his Montevideo audience.


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